The Exeter Chiefs have been on an incredible journey with their rise to the top happening at a rapid pace. The club has progressed all the way from the fourth tier of English rugby to the very top of the Premiership. The Chiefs are a well run organisation with a clear identity driving them forward, the club is by far the most consistent team in the Premiership and their rise to the pinnacle is an inspiring story.
The Chiefs are the only club in England to win the top three tiers of English rugby, winning the 3rd tier in 1997 and the second tier 12 years later. The 2009/10 season saw Exeter gain promotion into the Premiership for the first time in their history and the Chiefs finished eighth in their inaugural season.
The club reached the quarter-finals in their first ever campaign in the European Challenge Cup before losing out to Stade Francais. The following season the Chiefs finished 5th in the Premiership reaching the Heineken cup for the very first time.
“Its been an incredible journey, when I first arrived here it was always the ambition to get to the next level. Whenever we got to the next level, like winning the Championship, the aim was then to get into the Challenge cup and to push on again to try and get into Europe’s premier competition” said Gareth Steenson.
Steenson played a crucial role in helping the Chiefs gain promotion into the Premiership, the Irish fly-half scored 24 points in their 29-10 victory over Bristol in the Championship playoff final. Steenson joined Exeter in 2008 and has made 189 appearances for the club, he has scored 1,728 points for the Chiefs and won the Premiership golden boot in 2016.
Exeter acquired their first piece of major silverware in 2014 defeating Northampton Saints 15-8 to win the 2013/14 LV= cup. The Chiefs also steadily established themselves in the Premiership achieving multiple mid-table finishes. The 2015-16 season saw Exeter reach the Premiership playoffs and they subsequently defeated Wasps 34-23 to reach their first Premiership final, the Chiefs played Saracens at Twickenham.
The first half proved to be a nightmare for Exeter with the Chiefs going in at half-time 23-6 down. The Chiefs fought back in the second half scoring two tries and getting to within 5 points, however Alex Goode scored a try with 5 minutes to go sealing the title for Saracens. The match finished 28-20 to Saracens, Exeter fell short on this occasion but the Chiefs would be back.
The next season saw the Chiefs reach the playoffs once again with the club playing in their second consecutive final. This time around the Chiefs faced Wasps and the game proved to be memorable. The match was a close affair throughout with both teams scoring two converted tries.
The match entered extra-time with the score locked at 20-20, this was first ever Premiership final to go into added time. In the ninety eightieth minute the Chiefs were awarded a penalty in the Wasps 22 metre line and the ever reliable Steenson stepped up to take the kick. Steenson converted the penalty and the Chiefs held on to make history.
“It does feel like a long journey getting here, I’ve never woken up feeling like it’s a dream because the people who have lived it and breathed it every day know how hard we’ve worked and they know the sacrifices that have been made” said Director of rugby Rob Baxter after the final.
Baxter is legend at Exeter both as a player and coach. He originally joined the club in 1987 as a player and quickly embedded himself at the club. Baxter played for 16 years and spent 10 of those years as club captain making over 300 appearances in this period. He joined the Chiefs coaching team in 2005 initially as a forwards coach before he progressed onto the role of head coach in 2009.
He has established Exeter Chiefs as a force in the Premiership and his personal stock has risen greatly. Baxter won the Premiership Director of the year award in the 2011/12 season and has been tipped as a favourite to become England’s next head coach.
“I’m not going to sit here and deny that it’s not an interesting proposition and that the job isn’t an interesting job because of course it is. I am very emotionally driven by what I’m doing here at Exeter and that hopefully means it gives me the best chance of making a good job of it. You should only put yourself forward for any of these roles when you are 100% ready for it yourself” said Baxter.
Another reason behind Exeter’s success is their excellent player recruitment and top-notch academy system. The Chiefs are not interested in signing superstars instead they highlight players who have struggled or been forgotten at their previous clubs and mold them into their team.
James Short struggled for game time at London Irish playing 13 matches and scoring only three tries in one disappointing season at Irish, but since moving to Exeter the winger has excelled scoring 29 tries in 63 appearances for the club.
Olly Woodburn left Bath at the end of the 2014/15 season in search of more first team action, Woodburn had only made 44 appearances in 4 seasons at Bath. The left-wing has already surpassed that tally at Exeter making 66 appearances and scoring 26 tries in three seasons.
The Exeter Chiefs academy is one of the best in the country and it plays a crucial role in ensuring their success on the field. In recent years twenty-five academy players have progressed into Exeter’s first team with Jack Nowell (26 caps), Henry Slade (13 caps), Luke Cowan-Dickie (9 caps) and Sam Simmonds (7 caps) all winning caps for England at international level.
Academy graduates such as Ben Moon, Dave Ewers, Jonny Hill and Sam Skinner are feature frequently in the Chiefs match day squad. This year alone has seen Exeter promote 14 academy players into the first team set up and the steady flow of talent doesn’t seem to be drying up.
Exeter love to play a possession style of rugby, they keep the ball for long periods of time and wait patiently for their opposition to make an error. This approach has proven to highly successful on the field with the Chiefs being able to breakdown most opposition defences. The club finished top of the Premiership last season winning 17 matches and scoring 79 tries. Exeter finished the campaign on a record 85 points eight clear of second place Saracens and the competed in their third Premiership final in a row.
The Exeter Chiefs are a very ambitious club who have a strong desire to build on their previous successes. Exeter will aim to continue their excellent form in the Premiership but the next step will be competing for the biggest prize in European rugby – the Champions Cup. The Chiefs have only reached the quarter-finals on one occasion and haven’t progressed any further in the competition. However I wouldn’t write Exeter off becoming Champions of Europe one day.
This season Exeter have started off their Premiership campaign with two impressive wins against Leicester Tigers and the Wasps. Despite the high of level competition in the Premiership the Chiefs are still my pick to lift the Premiership title. Exeter face a difficult group in the Champions cup with Castres, Munster and Gloucester providing stern opposition, I expect the Exeter Chiefs to qualify from this group and they will provide a massive problem for any side in the knockout stages,
I have great admiration for what Exeter have achieved over the past couple of seasons, I think the club is a clear example of how excellent ownership, strong belief, clear identity, promising talent and good teamwork can transform a club. Exeter have proved that you don’t need to spend millions every season trying to sign big names and instead they have invested in their academy which has given them continuity. The Chiefs have accomplished so much in such a short space of time and I think their journey of success is only just beginning.
I would like to credit the Premiership Rugby YouTube channel, Irish times, Guardian and Telegraph for the videos and articles provided in this blog. The relevant links are below.